3 stars
starring Ving Rhames and Wesley Snipes

by Stephen Notley

For some reason, Wesley Snipes gets top billing in this movie. Hard to understand, cuz this is Ving Rhames' movie all the way.

The setup: Wesley Snipes is serving life for murder, and over the last 10 years he's been prison boxing champ. Ving Rhames is the current champ, newly jailed for rape. Big boxing match to ensue. Yeah! Look at those sparks fly!

Except not the sparks you might be thinking. This kind of movie, you figure it's going to be a clash of personalities, Wesley v. Ving, shivving it out in the pen, building a rivalry that culminates in a huge bloody box-out at the end. But for some reason, Welsey (who was co-producer of the film) forgot to write himself into the film. After a brief tussle with Ving he gets tossed in solitary confinement where he stays for most of the movie building medieval Japanese houses out of toothpicks. Clash of personalities? Uh, no. Instead, just one personality: Ving Rhames.

We recall Ving Rhames getting his ass slammed and gettin' medieval in Pulp Fiction. Things looked great for his career, but then Hollywood decided they liked Michael Clarke Duncan better as the Big Black Guy, and Duncan started getting all Ving's roles. It's a shame, cuz there's something mean and raw in Ving's acting that just aint' there in the cuddly teddy-bear Duncan.

Here, Ving Is Iceman, a hulking, fuck-you-up bruiser sent to jail. We don't get a lot of the typical prison-movie tropes: the rape in the shower, the nasty guards beating on the prisoners. Reason: anytime anybody messes with Ving, wham! they get pounded into the floor. He spends more time worrying about his career and the bills he's gotta pay than in working the prison social circles.

In fact, the movie coasts along for quite a ways on Ving's charisma before getting into gear. There's even  a scene about halfway through when Peter Falk, an aging boxing-enthusiast mafia don, yells at the plot: "Quit wasting time and set the fucking thing up!"

Eventually Wesley shows up again, and there's a couple more blips in the story, and then it's boxing time. The weird thing here, with all the non-interaction between Ving and Wesley, is that you go into the final fight not really knowing who you're supposed to be rooting for. I mean, I guess Wesley's supposed to be the hero, but we've just spent 70 minutes watching Ving do his stuff, and he's the guy we care about. Are we to watch dispassionately? Is this a dramatic fumble, or an unconventional twist? Not clear, but they sure do hit each other a lot.

Walter Hill's the director, and though it's been a while since The Warriors or 48 Hours, he still knows how to keep things moving with fast cuts and blipped captions and little tricks like that. There are a few bits that don't really add up --clips from an interview with Ving's maybe rape victim pop up and out with no real reason-- but it never quite hits that level where it's stupid or boring and you're looking at your watch. It's about as filling as a soft taco from Taco Time after the movie. Which, if you think about it, is kinda filling.